Today, roaming charges have been dropped across the European Union. If you live in Berlin and travel to Budapest, you can keep using your existing data plan at no extra cost, and you keep (more or less) the same data allowance. That’s neat for Europeans, but it’s also good news for international travelers, because you only need to buy one SIM card at the start of your trip, and then you’re covered until you go home.
Roaming across the EU was once as bad as roaming everywhere. While peering agreements between different carriers mean that they don’t really pay each other when their users travel (travelers from Germany to Spain, for example, are canceled out by travelers in the other direction), the telcos still charged us users plenty whenever we left home. In recent years, carriers have been forced to offer cheap roaming packages, but these have varied from carrier to carrier, and usually had to be purchased and activated manually.
As of today, June 15th 2017, all that changes. The new “Roam like Home” law means that you should never be charged extra when you travel out of your home country — you will continue to pay your domestic rate. For most of us, we don’t need to know any more than that. As of today, EU residents can just travel and use their phone as usual. There’s no need to do anything, least of all carry a little baggie of local SIM cards as you cross the continent. The changes apply to voice calls, text messages, and data.
But there are a few rules to prevent abuse of the system. Unlike most US consumer law, these actually manage to offer protection to the big companies without loopholes that let them exploit the customer. For instance, the main rule says that you can only roam in a country for four months. After that, your home carrier can start charging you extra for calls, data, and messages (but even then, those charges are capped). This is to stop folks from finding and buying the cheapest plan in all Europe and then just going home to their more-expensive country. It seems reasonable. Four months is more than enough for almost any trip.
How much data can you use?
There can, however, be slight reductions in the data you have available to you. This is because the roaming allowance is calculated on what you pay for your phone plan, and not the data included in that plan. For instance, if you pay €10 per month for 1GB data, your Roam like Home “allowance” is based on the €10, and not on the 1GB part.
There is an online calculator to help you work out how much data you’ll get, but in practice, you can ignore it. The calculations are based on billing in order to balance out the different costs for phone service in different countries, but in reality the prices across the entire EU are already capped, so these differences are minimal.
Let’s look at an example. I pay €10 per month for 1.5GB. If I plug that into the calculator, and tell it my country of origin (Germany), it spits out 2.18GB. Roaming allowances aren’t allowed to exceed your domestic allowance, so I’ll get my full 1.5GB and no more. In practice, then, it’s unlikely that you’ll see a reduction in data allowance unless you come from a country where plans are already super cheap.
It’s pretty amazing, and shows just what happens when the government gets involved in business. And speaking of business, expect a healthy new trade to develop in EU SIMs for international travelers. Whatever you do, don’t travel from the US and roam from your own home plan. Take the time to buy a single SIM when you get here and you’ll enjoy cheap and fast internet the whole time.